Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 2  /  

The ‘narrative strategy’: A politicized strategy for leaving Afghanistan

The 'narrative strategy': A politicized strategy for leaving Afghanistan The 'narrative strategy': A politicized strategy for leaving Afghanistan
To cite this article: Wein, Tom. “The ‘narrative strategy’: Proposing a politicized strategy for leaving Afghanistan”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 2, Spring 2011, pages 25-27.

The war in Afghanistan will end in the next few years. In straitened economic circumstances, the will of NATO countries to continue the fight is waning. The UK has already announced a firm deadline for the end of combat operations. For all the talk of ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal, US leaders will come under great pressure to demonstrate that their soldiers are on their way home. Given this limitation, NATO leaders must try to achieve their aims on a far shorter timeline than similar aims have been achieved in comparable conflicts. They can best attempt this by employing a strategy that focuses on public perceptions of security, and the narrative created by events in Afghanistan.


The war in Afghanistan was launched with two aims. The first aim was simple revenge: ‘holding to account’ those responsible for the September 11th attacks, as the language of the time put it. With the Taliban regime toppled, and many (perhaps most) senior Al-Qaeda members killed, this has largely been achieved, and the second aim has taken precedence. The second aim was to increase the security of the citizens of NATO countries. [i]

This was to be done by denying Al-Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan in the long term. The first half has been achieved. Members of Al-Qaeda still hide in Pakistan, and from time to time operate in Afghanistan. However, the group cannot currently organize, recruit, plan or take any of the many steps required to harm Western interests from a base in Afghanistan. The latter half of this aim has not been achieved. In order to do so, NATO has tried to build an Afghan government inimical to Al-Qaeda. This in turn has necessitated a long war against the Taliban, since they threaten to defeat this Afghan government before it can enforce its writ and fulfil its purpose of denying sanctuary to Al-Qaeda. The ambitious scale of this grand strategy has meant that it has exerted a kind of intellectual gravitational force, so that it has itself been promoted into an aim. Failure to defeat the Taliban and build the Afghan state will connote overall defeat for many of the watching parties. This is exacerbated by the extreme unpleasantness of the Taliban, and their ideological similarity to Al-Qaeda: because defeating them would be good, it is easy to see doing so as an aim.

If Western publics perceive their states to have been defeated, they will feel less secure. Since security is not simply a function of the statistical risk of death, but also a question of perception, this will mean that NATO has failed in a key war aim. Yet as the will to fight fades and deadlines approach, it is probably not possible to defeat the Taliban and build a functioning Afghan state which controls all of its territory. Therefore, two things must happen. First, the public must be reminded that building the Afghan state, and indeed defeating the Taliban, were only ever means to an end; they must be relegated to their proper places within a wider strategy. Second, an alternative strategy must be chosen.

Reconciliation & Reintegration

The next strategy to be attempted is Reconciliation & Reintegration (R&R). This would mean making peace with significant parts of the Taliban, in return for guarantees against the return of Al-Qaeda, as well as an assortment of face-saving promises. In its most likely form, R&R would remake the Afghan state so that elements of the Taliban could rule areas of Southern Afghanistan as they wished, so long as they accepted certain requirements.

Yet R&R is not very much quicker than state-building. It requires years of ‘hurting stalemate’, without which the Taliban have no incentive to compromise. This is quite apart from the complex socialization processes involved, and is before serious talks can even begin.[ii] In Northern Ireland, famously, the UK government and the PIRA talked from 1972 until 1997.[iii] The embarrassing revelation that Coalition Forces have negotiated with a fake Taliban mediator is evidence of just how complex and confusing even beginning the process of R&R can be.[iv] R&R therefore also cannot achieve the desired aim, given the available timeframe.

The narrative strategy

Indeed, there is nothing NATO can realistically do that will alter the facts in Afghanistan sufficiently to achieve their aim, given the constraints they are under. They should therefore return to the idea of security as rooted in perception. There is insufficient will at this point to effect any strategy which will significantly alter the likelihood that NATO citizens will be killed by Al-Qaeda attacks. However, the resources are available to effect a strategy which will make them feel more secure. Certainly, the likelihood of a clear defeat while pursuing the current strategy would make them feel significantly less secure. The way forward, then, is to create a narrative of non-defeat for Western publics.

This ‘narrative strategy’ puts the reassurance of the public at its heart. It will therefore be a deeply politicized strategy. Many decisions will be taken which go against conventional military logic. It thus rests on an understanding of civil-military affairs which, following Eliot Cohen, dismisses any ‘purely military’ sphere of action, and asserts the right of political leaders to involve themselves in all levels of warfare.

Underlying assumptions of the narrative strategy

The narrative strategy rests on NATO forces distancing themselves from the consequences in Afghanistan. In order to do so, it must appear to Western publics that NATO forces have successfully completed their task, and that the Afghan state they leave behind is competent and in control. This must appear to be the case at the point of departure, and also several years later.

If this strategy rests on influencing how Western publics perceive events and actors in Afghanistan, we must understand how Western publics, and the media organizations which inform them, currently perceive those events and actors, and how they perceive war in general. This understanding rests on two key postulations:

Western publics have a limited attention span and many other concerns. They will therefore pay less than complete attention to the situation in Afghanistan. If the situation becomes too complex, or the war continues for too long, they are likely to lose interest altogether. Rupert Smith memorably captures this point in his image of the audience viewing the action through drinking straws. Consequently, much of the geography and detail of Afghanistan remains unfamiliar, and events are more newsworthy than trends.

Western publics view war through the prism of WWII, which remains the archetypal ‘good war’. Vietnam is the archetypal ‘bad war’, both for its own sake and because it did not follow the WWII model.[vii] This means that: ‘proper’ war is still fought over territory, not hearts and minds; ‘proper’ war is conducted by disciplined, uniformed armies; and that the apogee of war is the named battle.

Policy implications

Taking these postulations into account, there are measures that may be taken which will help separate NATO from the eventual consequences in Afghanistan. Of course, this is to assume that the consequences will be overwhelmingly negative. This is not definitely the case. With luck, the newly independent Afghan state will beat the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan and be able to in some measure target Al-Qaeda if it tries to return (or at least provide intelligence support to US special forces doing so). Yet it is best to plan on the basis that this is not so, and that the Taliban will either defeat the Afghan government by seizing Kabul, or will at least be able to take de facto control of Southern Afghanistan.

If this is the case, then the Afghan government must at least be able to hold off the Taliban for some period of time: ‘a decent interval’, in Kissinger’s phrase. If the Taliban rule Kabul three months after NATO’s departure, then the narrative strategy will have been a failure, for the public will hold NATO responsible for the defeat of the Afghan government. If, however, the Taliban arrive in Kabul after ten years of bitter and confused civil war then NATO will not be held responsible; they will be sufficiently separated from the consequences that it will not significantly affect the sense of security of their citizens.

Given the above statements about the Western understanding of war in general and the war in Afghanistan in particular, resources should focus on strengthening the Afghan National Army (ANA) rather than other arms of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). They are the most effective (and somewhat better liked) branch of ANSF, and will therefore be better able to combat and delay the Taliban. This delay will increase the distance between NATO forces and the eventual political result in Afghanistan. Equally important from a communications perspective is the Western view that the military are the appropriate actor in a traditional war. It is therefore the readiness of the ANA that will have the greater influence on Western public judgements on NATO efforts.

When Western publics judge the readiness of the ANA, fighting performance will naturally be a vital metric, and of course training in marksmanship and battle drills should not be reduced. However, some more superficial points will also form important metrics for the public. Discipline and uniform dress are two of the most immediately obvious characteristics of Western militaries, and the more the ANA resemble a Western military, the more they will be considered ready. Images of ANA soldiers smartly dressed and marching in time may be militarily irrelevant, but Western publics will be more likely to adjudge that NATO have accomplished their role, and hence will feel more secure. Training should therefore include a greater emphasis on discipline and bearing.

The deployment of these newly trained forces should similarly be decided in line with the narrative strategy. First, in order to separate NATO from the eventual consequences in Afghanistan, ANA forces must be deployed in order to delay any Taliban advance. This will probably mean holding and protecting major transport routes. More than this, though, the perceived, ‘communicated’ progress of the Taliban may also be affected by the deployment of ANA troops. Since much of the geography of Afghanistan remains unfamiliar to Western publics, broad swathes of the countryside may be considered irrelevant to the narrative strategy. Key locations should be heavily garrisoned and held which have emotional value to Western publics. These should be selected because they have been the sites of NATO casualties or where NATO victories have been trumpeted, such as Marjah. If these locations are held for a significant time, Western publics will perceive that NATO forces have left behind a competent and prepared ANA, and will consequently feel more secure.

Of course, as NATO forces depart, their leverage over the Afghan government and the ANA will decrease, and it will become more difficult to dictate how they should be deployed. As Stephen Biddle noted upon the publication of U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, an inability to steer the behaviour of our Afghan partners has been a key weakness of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan.[viii] There is no complete answer to this. Naturally, NATO forces will not all leave simultaneously, and a continuing training and counterterrorism mission form a part of all suggested strategies for Afghanistan. Some leverage will therefore be preserved through the funding, special forces and airpower which the ANA lack, and the US will be willing to provide. Also of great importance will be personal relationships; senior policymakers must build close relationships with ANA leaders responsible for operational deployments over the next few years. In this context, perhaps the most important relationships will be with Brigadier General Abdul Hamid, head of 205th Corps (responsible for Kandahar, Zabul, Oruzgan, Helmand and Nimruz provinces), and his four brigade commanders. These somewhat more junior commanders are less touched by the political imperative of seeming free from Western control, and are therefore less likely to reject advice and aid out of hand.

In the meantime, NATO forces under General Petraeus are largely already acting in a manner that would support the narrative strategy. They are targeting the Taliban kinetically with an increased air bombardment. This aggressive strategy will not beat the Taliban, as counterinsurgency theorists have long been explaining, but it will degrade and inhibit them, delaying any eventual resurgence and therefore further separating NATO from the eventual consequences in Afghanistan.


The strategy proposed above is a deeply unpalatable one. It may well condemn a great many Afghans to short, terrible lives. It would be better by far to build a fully functioning democratic Afghan state. Yet I believe that the current state-building strategy, when attempted without the necessary resources or will, leads eventually to the same bloody result, only without the limited benefits of a Western public that feels more secure. If this narrative strategy is to succeed, it will require planning and focus, and hence a hard-headed acceptance of the realities described above. Fred Snepp provides a cautionary account of the US departure from Vietnam:

‘I’d been in Vietnam five and half years when the end came. It was one of the most shameful moments I’ve ever lived through…The reason it ended that way was wishful thinking on the part of a lot of American officials. Few wanted to admit the war was lost. So we waited too long to plan for the exit.’[ix]


[i] In the UK, the second aim has always taken precedence, because it was not directly attacked in the same way as was the US. Although this essay refers to NATO and ISAF, it means by these terms principally the US, since they are both the primary driving force and primary participant in the war. However, the points made will often apply to all the contributing NATO countries. Where relevant, I shall reflect differences for the UK in these notes. I have neither the space nor the expertise to accurately discuss the experiences of the Netherlands, Germany, or other participants in the war.
[ii] Brahm, Eric, ‘Hurting Stalemate Stage’ in Beyond Intractability, eds. Burgess, Guy & Burgess, Heidi, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, September 2003.
[iii] Taylor, Peter, Brits: The War Against the IRA, Bloomsbury, 2002, pp.118-124.
[iv] Green, Matthew, ‘Fake Taliban chief dupes Nato’, Financial Times, 23 November 2010.
[v] Cohen, Eliot, Supreme Command, Simon & Schuster, 2002.
[vi] Smith, Rupert, The Utility of Force, Allen Lane, 2005, pp.284-285.
[vii] In the UK, the archetypal ‘bad war’ is WWI. This implies some important differences. Unlike Vietnam, WWI is not bad because it broke the army, or because it conscripted a generation who wanted to be free; on the contrary, it is because discipline and enthusiasm were maintained that the slaughter continued, and the scale of the losses became so great. This implies that force protection plays a greater role for the UK than for the US; whereas the US public are most of all concerned by the success or failure of the mission, for the UK the death toll plays a greater role. This may be seen in the more extensive public commemoration of individuals in Parliament and the UK media than in the US.
[viii] Stephen Biddle, The New U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual as Political Science and Political Praxis, Perspectives on Politics, June 2008 (Vol. 6/No. 2), pp.347-350.
[ix] Snepp, Fred, Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End, Random House, 1977, found at King’s of War, ‘A decent interval: is it too much to ask?’, 25 November 2010.